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Why Lithium Can’t Save Afghanistan

There will never be a “Saudi Arabia of lithium” anywhere

By Michael Reilly | Discovery News | June 15, 2010

Following the news Monday that geologists have found a mother lode of minerals in Afghanistan — reports argued deposits of iron, copper, gold and other goodies could collectively be worth close to $1 trillion — it’s worth asking a few extra questions.

In particular, there’s been an unusually strong focus on the lithium portion of the find. A key ingredient in high-tech batteries for laptops, smart phones, electric cars and the like, its been heralded as the future cornerstone of the world’s energy infrastructure.

But is lithium really going to save Afghanistan, as many media outlets seem to think? Nope, not even close.

In the words of Brian Jaskula, a lithium commodity expert with the United States Geological Survey, “We’ll be extracting lithium from the ocean before we’ll be extracting it from Afghanistan.” (Jaskula was not involved with the Afghanistan work.)

Extracting lithium from the ocean is a real thing, but it’s expensive. Instead, most lithium we use starts off dissolved in super-salty water underneath several feet of hard salt pan in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, one of the largest lithium producing regions on the planet. Argentina and Australia are also big producers of lithium.

Drilling for brines and then evaporating them in the arid desert air is the cheapest way to get the element, and it’s by far the most common. After that comes mining lithium-bearing minerals right out of granites. Until recently, sucking the element out of seawater, where it occurs in concentrations of just a few parts per million, was purely theoretical. But forecasts calling for steadily increasing prices have led South Korean interests to start building a factory to do just that.

According to Jaskula, South Korea’s decision is more than just a gamble on the market. “They want a steady supply of lithium, and they don’t want to have to rely on hostile countries for their supply, even if they have to pay a little more to get it,” he said.

Of course, no one anticipated the Pentagon’s recent announcement about Afghanistan; Jaskula was referring to Bolivia, whose Salar de Uyuni region contains vast stores of lithium. But the country has very little infrastructure for setting up a mining operation, not to mention a history of political unrest.

“And Afghanistan is a century behind Bolivia,” in terms of infrastructure, Jaskula said.

Then there’s the whole business of calling Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” Turns out that’s not right either, for a number of reasons. […]

Even if the country does turn out to have vast stores of lithium, it will be almost certainly useless. There will never be a “Saudi Arabia of lithium” anywhere, according to Jaskula.

For one thing, the term “lithium batteries” is somewhat misleading. Lithium is a crucial ingredient, but it makes up just a tiny fraction — maybe 2-3 percent — of the weight and cost of the batteries. For another, lithium prices nosedived in 2009, and are expected to drop again this year (PDF; lithium currently goes for about $5,000 per ton). Why? Mostly because of the economic downturn, producers have piles of lithium they can’t get rid of.

Even if demand recovers, electric cars take off, and all of our wildest dreams about lithium-based battery technology come true, Jaskula said current suppliers would have no trouble meeting our needs through the next ten years.

What’s more, the lithium in batteries is recyclable. It’s just not profitable to do it now. Common wisdom among industry experts is that as prices rise, recycling programs will blossom. By 2030, the need for virgin lithium will cease to exist, replaced by a self-sustaining lithium loop… Full article

Copyright © 2010 Discovery Communications, LLC.

June 19, 2010 - Posted by | Deception, Mainstream Media, Warmongering

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